Oil and Water

Abrahamic Monotheism versus the Buddha’s Dharma

by Gan Uesli Starling

Whenever any great religion absorbs a significant influx of converts, some percentage will feel compelled to weave cherished threads from their former faith into the one newly taken up. The resulting admixture, at first only a vaguely popular sentiment, may in time take on a separate life of its own. This is not always to the ultimate benefit of either faith. Here I refer to the often heard claim of persons being both Buddhist and theist.

Below I present five striking points of divergence. These are core elements of dogma. Any fair comparison presents the horns of an insoluble dilemma. In no case will we be able to sanely embrace both ideas at once. As rational beings, we must either choose one, or choose the other. Like oil and water, no enduring mixture of the two is possible.

What is it that may be rightly called the Ultimate?

Buddhist: Dharma, the highest truth, the purest form of goodness, is what may best be called the Ultimate. Yet as the literal embodiment of this purest goodness, a buddha too may be called ultimate. But regardless of whether buddhas existed in the world, or whether they did not, there would still be Dharma, purely in and of itself.

Theist: God alone may be called the Ultimate. It is the existence of God which defines goodness. Goodness is not a principle which is embodied or embraced by God. Rather it is from the nature of God that any and all goodness issues forth. Were it not for God, there could be no ultimate, no goodness, nor any thing at all.

What is the nature of right and wrong?

Buddhist: Right and wrong are self-defining, quite independent from any intelligent discrimination. That which empowers and uplifts sentient beings is said to be right. Whatever runs counter, limiting and draging them down, is called wrong. Both are the expression of Dharma, a natural law wholly unsullied by any conscious directive influence.

Theist: God decides what is right and wrong. It is the will of God which makes them so. Should God wish things otherwise, that then is what they would be. His power is infinite, even in this.

What is the nature of being?

Buddhist: Sentient beings have ever been. We are not created. Being thus uncreated, no power exists that may utterly destroy us. Our nature is of a beginningless, endless stream of consciousness whose contents may change, but which flows on without interruption. All are equals in potential, if not yet in realization. Not a one has absolute sovereignty over any other.

Theist: All living creatures are made by God. Life and experience are gifts from God. None there are who own themselves. God is the sovereign lord of all. The whole of creation and everything in it, our own selves included, are his to direct. He may do with us whatever he wishes. His is the unquestionable right to remake or destroy us, to reward us or cast us away forever.

What is the best that a being might hope for?

Buddhist: All sentient beings, no matter what their past actions or present condition, each and every single one, all the way down to the least and the last, may equally aspire to attain the ultimate. And in the end, all will do so, however long that it may take.

Theist: A human being may at best aspire to an eternity of close proximity to God, thereby to bask in the glory of the ultimate. But it is in no way possible for any save God to embody the ultimate within themselves.

What is the worst that any being has to fear?

Buddhist: To be for a time, lost and alone in all of samsara, wandering through hells and the other realms. But in the end, that one too, the very last among an infinity of peers, must finally succeed in attaining the ultimate. No one at all is in any way doomed to eternal suffering.

Theist: An eternity of agony, anguish and despair, trapped and tormented in a benighted prison, deprived forever from any and all contact with the even the smallest trace of goodness. For those who die without God’s sanction, no shred of hope whatever remains...not even oblivion.

Oil and water... How can they be amalgamated? Impossible to embrace both at once! One cosmology totally negates the other on far, far too many points. Clearly they cannot be fused in equal measure. One value system must surrender to the other in several fundamental ways. So, how do people who claim to be both resolve these conflicts? Or do they?

What, specifically, did Shakyamuni Buddha have to say regarding the ubiquity of theist notions? Here I quote from Buddhist scripture. This text explains how a solitary god, dwelling upon a spiritual plane higher than ours, but unable to perceive those planes higher still, will become deluded into thinking himself supreme...and later will covince others that it is so. It clearly explains the derivation of all monotheistic creeds. These are the very words of Buddha as He explains the origin of one specific Wrong View.

Digha Nikaya

division one, sutta one

The Supreme Net,
What the Teaching Is Not

verses 2.1 through 2.6

2.1. “There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are partly Eternalists and partly Non-Eternalists, who proclaim the partial eternity and the partial non-eternity of the self and the world in four ways. On what grounds?

2.2. “There comes a time, monks, sooner or later after a long period, when this world contracts. At a time of contraction, beings are mostly reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious -- and they stay like that for a very long time.

2.3. “But the time comes, sooner or later after a long period, when this world begins to expand. In this expanding world an empty palace of Brahma appears. And then one being, from exhaustion of his life-span or of his merits, falls from the Abhassara world and arises in the empty Brahma-palace. And there he dwells, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious -- and he stays like that for a very long time.

2.4. “Then in this being who has been alone for so long there arises unrest, discontent and worry, and he thinks: Oh, if only some other beings would come here! And other beings, from exhaustion of their life-span or of their merits, fall from the Abhassara world and arise in the Brahma-palace as companions for this being. And there they dwell, mind-made...and they stay like that for a very long time.

2.5. “And then, monks, that being who first arose there thinks: I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. These beings were created by me. How so? Because I first had this thought: ‘Oh, if only some other beings would come here!’ That was my wish, and then these beings came into this existence! But those beings who arose subsequently think: This, friends, is Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. How so? We have seen that he was here first, and that we arose after him.

2.6. “And this being that arose first is longer-lived, more beautiful and more powerful than they are. And it may happen that some being falls from that realm and arises in this world. Having arisen in this world, he goes forth from the household life into homelessness. Having gone forth, he by means of effort, exertion, application, earnestness and right attention attains to such a degree of mental concentration that he thereby recalls his last existence, but recalls none before that. And he thinks: That Brahma...he made us, and he is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, the same for ever and ever. But we who were created by that Brahma, we are impermanent, unstable, short-lived, fated to fall away, and we have come to this world. This is the first case whereby some ascetics and Brahmins are partly Eternalists and partly Non-eternalists.”

And again, in another sutta, Lord Buddha reiterates the above, with emphasis. He very specifically negates any and all theist doctrine.

Digha Nikaya

division three, sutta twenty-four

Patika Sutta,
The Charlatan

verses 2.14 through 2.17

2.14 “Bhaggava, I know the first beginning of things, and I know not only that, but what surpasses it in value. And I am not under the sway of what I know, and not being under its sway I have come to know for myself that quenching, by the realisation of which the Tathagata cannot fall into perilous paths. There are, Bhaggava, some ascetics and Brahmins who declare as their doctrine that all things began with the creation by a god, or Brahma. I have gone to them and said: ‘Reverend sirs, is it true that you declare that all things began with the creation by a god, or Brahma?’ ‘Yes’, they replied. Then I asked: ‘In that case, how do the reverend teachers declare that this came about?’ But they could not give an answer, and so they asked me in return. And I replied:

2.15.-17. “ ‘There comes a time, friends, sooner or later after a long period, when this world contracts. ... Beings are born in the Abhassara Brahma world and stay there a long time. When this world expands, one being falls from there and arises in an empty Brahma palace. He longs for company, other beings appear, and he and they believe he created them (Sutta 1, verses 2.2-6). That, Reverend Sirs, is how it comes about that you teach that all things began with the creation by a god, or Brahma.’ And they said: ‘We have heard this, Reverend Gotama, as you have explained.’ But I know the first beginning of things...and not being under the sway of what I know I have come to know that quenching by the realisation of which the Tathagata cannot fall into perilous ways.”

You’ve just read the explanation given by Buddha. Creationism is, simply put, not so... May I add that it avails nothing to rail against things which do not exist. Phantom concepts cannot have harmed us in any real sense. Only our fear of them can have done so, or perhaps our failed expectations. Thus, no illusion may be held to account for its failure to exist. There is nothing and no one to blame...except our own ignorance. All that remains is to put it behind us and go on from here.

Perhaps this is why Buddha seldom addressed the topic, except in response to explicit questions. Only in a very few passages does He trouble to uproot the flawed logic employed in support of creationism. For the most part He leaves its proponents politely unchallenged. Just know that creationism is utterly foreign to the Dharma taught by Buddha. We do ill service to graft it on where it does not properly fit in.

Still, for 1st generation Western Buddhists born and raised in an adamantly theist culture, to relinquish this concept is difficult. While it may seem easy to abandon blind adoration for the cosmic protagonist in the Old Testament Book of Nahum, or of Numbers 31:17-18, one might still find it difficult surrender God fearing habits. I, myself, can attest to this. Some deeply personal research into both value systems seems in order for anyone teetering on the fence. I do hope no one takes offense. But the scriptures are as they are. Buddhism and monotheism are as they are.

True, both have salient points in common. In fact, most every faith has a measure of virtue. One might even reasonably argue that theism has a very important roll to play. Even a technically incorrect understanding may still inspire many beings toward Right Conduct, Right Motivation, etc. Just so, many theists create good karma. And Buddha rejoices for their efforts. As a Buddhist, I must rejoice for them also. But this said, it would still be improper simply to stand aside without resisting the import of theism into the Dharma. Buddhadharma should not be diluted, so that its fullest benefit for beings will be retained. To fail in resisting such a dilution is a disservice to sentient beings.

Counterfeit dharmas are a danger. Buddha gave warning as to this. He predicted an end time (periodic interval boundary) when counterfeit teachings would rise ascendent. No...the world will not come to an end then. But truth will, followed by a period of spiritual darkness before the Dharma may securely be turned again. In the interim, beings will suffer.

How can you identify a counterfeit? It looks real, it feels real, and many people accept it for real. Parts of it may even be real. But it is not wholly real. Already there seem to exist a number of probable candidates. It is not my place to name them here. This is surely an individual practitioner’s personal responsibility. And in any case they must surely be self-evident when compared to scripture. These are not evil, merely false, even if only partly so...just as many another aspect of human knowledge may be false. True, some good may result from their practice. Some good...perhaps even considerable good. But ultimate good cannot result. And bodhisattvas hold as their goal ultimate benefit for all beings. I truly feel that this much at least needs to be said. And having said it, here I lay the issue to rest.

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